Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

WisCon: Discussion Methods & Modes Set (2/4): The Body Language of Online Interaction

This panel report is the second of a set; the first panel report was Vigorous Debate, or Verbal Harassment?, and the third is FAIL! There is also a fourth post for my general thoughts and for comments spanning more than one panel.

This is a panel I attended, so the notes that follow were taken on a netbook and should be close paraphrases unless otherwise noted, either by quotation marks which indicates that I believe I am reporting verbatim, or by a qualifying statement. Corrections, additions, and requests for clarification are welcome. For the reasons stated in my first panel writeup, I will refer to panelists by their first names after the initial mention.


Contrary to received wisdom, it's possible to convey emotional information in text. In addition to the widely scorned emoticons, there's an evolving body language expressed through sentence length, word choice, timing, as well as purely typographic means. Every online community has its own nuances, and it can bewilder those hoping to join. This paraverbal information is used to maintain the boundaries between the cool kids and newcomers. Learn how to identify the body language in use to become a more confident net citizen.
M: Jaymee Goh. Lisa C. Freitag, Debbie Notkin, Heidi Waterhouse

Panel notes


Jaymee Goh: online since 1997, so did a lot of growing up there; in some ways feels more comfortable in text than person. Uses mainly Tumblr & Twitter; LJ only for quick updates about life. Conveys body language between * except in GChat; doesn't believe idea that can't convey body language online

Lisa C. Freitag: "I'm a poseur": doesn't do any traditional online or even offline things, just got texting two months ago. Learning a lot of online speak from 15 year old son. But does understand something about subtext of language in writing. Been playing World of Warcraft (WoW) for last three years, way of trying to be or hide who you are, found out interesting things about self, family, what people do and say and are and aren't afraid to say

Heidi Waterhouse: tech writer, all day at computer, has distributed brain of chat buddies, women doing IT, which finds comforting when sitting in office full of men. Has so many online presences cannot accurately catalog, Tumblr about cookbooks, Ravelry, Twitter, DW, LJ, AO3 . . . have about 20 media tabs open that are all her. But if don't have these, feel so lonely and cut off in the world. Sustains family relationships & friendships with really flat text communications (smileys! nothing more than that!)

Debbie Notkin: lived good deal of adult life before was Internet, kind of dilettante online, but still feels that a lot of her life is online. Mostly through chatting, LJ is rarely updated; but had a difficult spring, didn't read LJ for 3 months, and started feeling really cut off, which was surprise to her

Jaymee: start with technicalities and move on to more general topics about communicating. Favorite mode of communication? Visually, textually, subtextually? Failing all else: favorite terms, suffixes, prefixes (-ness, -sauce)?

Lisa: WoW has many different ways to communicate, all of which have pluses & minuses: up to 3 chat converations simultaneously, which can be private, guild, or general, the last of "which is often . . . *giggles from audience* . . . really enlightening." Can also "emote at or in the general vicinity of" people, there are maybe 80 emoticons, which depending on character's "race" [species, presumably] come out slightly differently. "Mostly I communicate in spelled words with punctuation." Which is itself distinctive. Favorite word to use is "Please."

Debbie: favorite mode of communication in any context is words, long before knew that there was such a thing as body language consciously. Still texts in spelled words with punctuation and has old kind of phone which can only do texts with number pad. Doesn't "think anyone else should have my kink," so doesn't mind textspeak, but.

Heidi: depends on emotional valance. Has conducted all fights with husband by e-mail for last 8 years because otherwise she cries and he feels guilty which is not productive (works okay when remember to do).

Someone, possibly Heidi? It's marked as an aside in my notes but not attributed: "The privilege of technologies is an interesting panel we should have sometime."

Heidi: so interested in technology to strip out body language that you don't want to perform. Often textually uses body language wouldn't do actually, such as typing *hugs* even if not hugging friends, because it's inappropriate in that medium to say "if I were there I would thump you on the shoulder and buy you a drink"

Jaymee: admits will not use certain punctuation in chat (apostrophes), but does on blog posts, and get really annoyed when dad texts in textspeak, though understands it's because of tiny buttons. Only deliberate misspelling she will use when texting is "what" as "wat" because she's using a number pad.

Heidi: so how much is medium dictating way communicate?

Jaymee: very interesting question!

Heidi: switched to QWERTY keyboard on phone because has friend whose preferred medium is text, well, had resources to communicate with her that way, so did

Lisa: WoW keyboard [? I know nothing about World of Warcraft] has shift key very close to key that gets you out of chat, so stopped capitalizing "I," and apostrophes are kind of hard, but doesn't remember to capitalize "I" when working now! Really easy to see "teh" and "meh" came from.

Jaymee: "teh" is Malay word for tea, pronounced differently.

Jaymee: asks rest of panel which chat they use

Heidi: mostly GChat through Pidgin [yay Google again for distinguishing Pidgin from pigeon for me]. Given up on capitalizing starts of sentences, it's a conversational tic to feel like not domineering, not really real sentences, like a comment

Debbie: (slightly OT, someone telling her that they had a dream that had comments.) Also uses Pidgin, useful for chatting with people on rare services. Sometimes long conversations and sometimes quick.

Jaymee: in chat, starts a lot of lines with just "and" and doesn't use full stop, just pause; anyone still using full sentences, differences?

Debbie: I use full sentences because do everywhere, but partner uses "..." to convey "I'm not done, don't interrupt me"

Heidi: often has threaded conversations, 2 or 3 going simultaneously, but in moment as watching go by, she can tell what's going on; often can tell friends by chat voice, timing, diction, word choice

Lisa: can you erase? go backwards?

Heidi: no

Lisa: in WoW get a box to fill out, 3 lines, compose and then enter

Heidi: yeah, but she's writing so fast she almost never proofs it. Has found that maximum is 6 conversations and trying to work. Does compose in window but not writing, talking, different to her.

audience member: re: full sentences & paragraphs: depends on what saying, casual conversations = whatever seems to flow, but if trying to convey sequence from beginning to end, then comes out in paragraphs, especially if trying to manage emotional experience of person talking to

audience member: lot of this is Greek to them because live in rural Vermonth without universal broadband, is on slow DSL, goes with idea about privilege of technology panel

audience member: feels that texting in paragraphs "ages you" [apparently, "marks you as older", which is not a usage I was familiar with]

Debbie: doesn't want to be mistaken for 35, I'm going to be 60, don't want older women to be invisible online

audience member: followup question: representation of self online, older? article about guy who presented self as disabled black lesbian

audience member [different?]: [I think topic was, things differ depending on where using chat/what for]: stopped using chat when started gaming a lot. There's kind of an assumption in press that foul language in online gaming comes from prepubescent boys, not sure about that. Also has totally different reaction using chat at work, given importance of being able to trail back decisions and directions that were given/made [seems to imply that their chat program doesn't allow that, which I guess if it were custom-built or internal it might not]

Lisa: did have a theory that could tell players age by language PLUS how behave, what choose to name selves. Unfortunately no way to verify. Apologies don't happen from people under 23 unless their parent makes (son does & has been mistaken for older person). No point in interacting with someone who's named self something that is pronounced "voodoo cock". Also older people say please.

audience member: older in this context is?

Lisa: sort of groups people online into "incorrigible teenagers, twenty-somethings, and people my age"

Jaymee: age conversation very fascinating, because when I was 13, people thought I was 35. As grown up, come much closer to actual (though now people probably think is 16 because use "happyflail" both online and off)

Debbie: even face-to-face guesses of age can be really wrong, and online more so. Tries to remember that guesses are guesses (sure doesn't succeed consistently); thinks there are patterns & stereotypes, but don't count on them

Lisa: but either way if you're playing like you're 13 I don't want to play with you

Jaymee: why not?

Lisa: because that sort of player will abandon you in middle of something, or be angry in hurtful way for mistake

Heidi: they're no fun

Lisa: yeah

Heidi: don't interact with a lot of people don't know right now, people know & people know by reference, but back in day used to play on MUSHes, text-based roleplaying, rich ground for reimagining. There were communities for being able to "fake" male/female successfully. Easier to fake male because unmarked; female, talk more about relationships (external ones) (this is what men think females are; don't agree but now I have identifier for people trying to fake)

me: "fake" means deceive or role-play? apparently I also had a question about pseudonyms, which I think was, my formative online experiences were all under my offline name more or less by happenstance; did anyone else come up through communities where they used pseudonyms instead and what effect did that have? But I might be conflating a thought and an actual question

[The answer to my question about "fake," I think, was "deliberately deceive outside the context of the game."]

Lisa: have fleet of online "toons" now (what you call your avatar in WoW, your player-character); tried to create characters of different races, genders, but found still spoke in full sentences and said please. Doesn't really character roleplay much different from her own personality, even if change appearance of character

audience member: jumping back to *hugs*/not: are there interpersonal emotions can express online and not off?

Heidi: came up through tiny local BBSes (phone lines in mother's basement to post one thing at a time), very hostile, full of particular kind of vitriol, so first thing did was try to pick gender-neutral handle ("wired"). Everyone reads that as female, doesn't know if reputation precedes or it's gendered in way that didn't recognize. So from that start, very difficult to transition to more humane communication system, learned that insult was the norm and anything else would get you piled on. Really influenced perception of how safe could be online: never, and they lived within 30 miles from you!

Debbie: no personal experience with 4chan, but after trolling incident, Liz Henry did some serious work on explain what's going on and why it's not as simple as nastiness, excellent article in first WisCon Chronicles (she has co-byline on it but it was all Liz). As far as representing self online: has always been self online, yet think so unbelievably valuable for people with things to protect or just want to try to something else, so important to be respectful of people who want to keep separations between offline and online identities

Jaymee: diplomacy of how negotiate relationships online really interesting

audience member: obsession these days is how to apologize sincerely online; pulling off much harder than she thought would be; sees Dreamwidth as place where if disagree get shoved out and never talk to them again

[Obviously I have no idea what this person's experiences were, but I think it lacking in utility to characterize Dreamwidth, a platform with over 20K active users, as a place where any particular social thing is true.]

audience member: followup to apologies: tools for communicating tone, and do they change as medium does?

Jaymee: personally not one to say sorry, do stuff instead, but very interesting question

[Which itself is a really interesting comment that I would love to see unpacked]

Lisa: so rare for anyone to apologize in WoW

Debbie: big fan of the question. In this case it might be, "What could I say or do that would help you understand how sorry I am/how much I wish I hadn't done that?" Often get a very genuine answer

Heidi: has mental list of ways not to: "I'm sorry but"; "I'm sorry you were offended"; "I'm sorry you took it that way"; "I'm sorry if". They call into question the experience of recipient. Works on model "I'm sorry. I did something wrong/inconsiderate." then tries not to ask for anything else

Lisa: [something I missed up front, but] notes that taking responsibility for error isn't "I'm sorry but"

Jaymee: so don't just rely on word on sorry, detail out responsibility in matter and make sure what write doesn't place blame on hurt person

Heidi: "The blame thing is infinite, it will just eat its tail"

Jaymee: so what do you do when being misread. Terrible thing to say "not what meant to say" because whatever meant, didn't come across, but how do address?

Heidi: often change medium when need to slow down, speed causes misreading. Said something in chat about friend's father (along lines of, he will be so happy for you) even though knew he was dead, said sorry in IM, then sent e-mail with longer apology; increasing bandwidth to expand

[Note: an interesting contrast with discussion of e-mail in prior panel, because it's involving existing friendships]

Lisa: depends whether been misread or had your subtext penetrated and discovered something real there

Debbie: "we are all always trying to look more awesome than we are"

Jaymee: very blunt way of putting it

Debbie: but [true, I think] at least for me; so something to be said for yes, you recognized something

Heidi: fail better genre

audience member: one thing that helps to try to avoid being misread/prepare to be misread, is to remember that someone will read in their emotional state not mine; how to do you use text constructions to convey, this is my emotional state?

Jaymee: knowing where other person is coming from really contextualizes conversation. Shared an online princess doll maker with friend, got back "why can't I make her fat" with no punctuation, that's something communicating bluntness, but in completely different context that lack of punctuation is going to communicate something different

audience member: different media leads to danger of spillover from one style to another, is a faculty member, seen colleagues abuse Reply-to-All with inappropriate comments

[Chad likes to wist after the ability to suspend faculty members' access to the all-faculty mailing list if they hit "reply to all" too often.]

Debbie: totally true online, but also offline

Jaymee: going back to whether there's any emotion online that wouldn't do/express offline

Debbie: no, other way around

Heidi: much more effusive online, which is a little frightening. When react that way in person get less respect, but online in known community of greater girl fandom, can squee without seeming young, immature, or whatever pejorative is being used for people with poor emotional control

Jaymee: depends on context. When meeting friends in person that met first online, does use things like squee & happyflail with them because of prior relationship

audience, to Heidi: but fight only online?

Heidi: useful definitions: intimacy = amount of personal information exchanged, including emotions. Bandwidth = how fast getting that information; talking in person is very fast, because of all the physical stuff that comes with words. Think some people need less bandwidth: intimacy may not change as step down.

Lisa: so that's one of the differences, not all people have all that bandwidth accessible, personally finds very broad bandwidth & lot of emotion to be overwhelming and drown out words

Heidi: ever have a point where feel like need more bandwidth with that person?

Lisa: no, totally reliant on words

Jaymee: but part of more bandwidth is clarification on where stand

Lisa: no, doesn't help, decreases utility; can see why would want to argue on e-mail but would take weeks to choose proper words so impractical

audience member: how much have different communities influenced; and also are there things you could say on WoW [that could only do there?]

Lisa: training on arbitrary rules to fit form not content [I am really not sure what this means now]

Debbie: quotes My Fair Lady, which I believe was "The French don't care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly."

Jaymee: oh yeah, it's something we do offline too!

audience member: anyone find selves trying to find way to mimic multichannel online communication when talking offline, like making "air square brackets" to indicate parentheticals, or otherwise trying to make up for lack of subtitles projected directly on retina?

Heidi: has footnote gesture, or says "footnote"

Jaymee: offline conversation style [I think] is very parenthetical so carries over

Lisa: saying smiley-face offline very different from smiling

Heidi: more intentional

Lisa: might not be looking at your face, so might miss

[I have never in my life done this. It would never have occurred to me to do it.]

audience: Twitter hashtag as metacomment [see ex. below]

panel: also LJ/blog tags

Jaymee: extra info that saves you spaces

Heidi: also obviously not in the flow of the rest of the comment. May think totally unique but not! Used #stupidmommyagain and found lots

Debbie: wants to go back to previous question re: multichanneling. Would love to have tags face to face, don't know how, but would be really useful

Heidi: want ability to archive conversations so can search them later

audience, panel: much YES and NO simultaneously

audience member: have friends that say "oh em gee", starting doing \o/ in person

various people say that had to look up "Paul Gross arms" [never heard term before myself]

audience member: re: archiving conversation & work chats, found works chats invaluable because of archiving, [will use, I think] specifically so can find things later

Debbie: only scratched surface of topic

Heidi: watching her 8 year old learn to communicate online: "Holy shit is that what it looks like! Oh my god!"

Some further comments

I thought this had a lot of interesting content, maybe too much for one panel. I would like to have spent more time on the sheer mechanics of online body language, though I understand that to get to "how" you sort of need to go through "why," but hey, we can do that here.

Emoticons. My formative online years were spent in a community in which they were not favored. I do have my very own smiley, thusly: => , but I don't use it very often. I am much more likely to write out an expression of an emotion.

Emphasis. Again because of my formative online experiences, I only do html in entries, not comments. Using underscores and asterisks for emphasis marks me as old-school more than probably anything else, but considering the keystrokes I save, I really cannot be bothered to care (unless people have accessibility concerns).

(I also use asterisks for actions, like *rummages*.)

Word choice, sentence construction, paragraph construction (linguists, may this be shorthanded as "syntax"?). My online communication is over e-mail and LJ/DW/blogs; I don't use chat and very rarely text. I think it's pretty easy to tell my usual levels of formality: under ordinary circumstances, I compose posts in a more deliberate, consciously-written way, and revise and proofread them. Comments are generally done at speed and are much more likely to be a cross between what I'm thinking as I'm thinking it and what I might say if we were face-to-face: less structured, more convoluted sentence structure, more stream-of-consciousness, more casual profanity, more acronyms or abbreviations.

An example might be this recent comment, which I made in response to a post about elves and problematic genre tropes:

Yup. _Lord of the Rings_ is slightly more complicated about stasis, wrt Elves and generally, than Tolkien is often given credit for, but it is unquestionably focusing on the upper classes almost to the exclusion of all else, and those things, like the idea of diminishing magic, have definitely become genre furniture without examination of what they actually _mean_.

Except for the "Yup.", that's all one sentence; contains one abbreviation ("wrt") and a fair amount of deliberately-unpacked commentary directed at someone I thought likely to not need the unpacking ("slightly more complicated"; "diminishing magic"; and, to some extent, "genre furniture"); and could have been usefully restructured into at least two sentences. I did revise that slightly for grammar, but only that, because I was trying to get other things done at the same time.

(I do not want to discuss the topic of that comment here, please, or any of the things I'm going to be referencing. This is a form-and-methods post.)

I want to end by closely reading two examples of my own online body language that immediately jumped to mind when I was thinking about this panel. This is going to be long, so the short version is: sometimes I get terser and more formal when I'm angry, leaving the emotion to come through the lines; sometimes I explicitly state the emotion but still convey it through word, sentence, and paragraph structure. In these two cases, I think some of the difference was my relationships with the people, some was the different topics (both were legal questions, but one was about fair use and one was about rape), and some may have been increasing comfort with the strategic uses and effects of anger. You can now skip to the comments, if you like.

Okay, example one. Several years ago, I mentioned that I'd lost my temper in a particular discussion but wasn't sure whether it was obvious to anyone but Chad that I was angry, and got several comments from friends saying "oh yes it was." The conversation in question is part of a very long comment thread without comment permalinks, so I will excerpt below. The sequence I was thinking of starts at "August 9, 2006 02:42 PM", in which I quote someone else and then state,

You are misinformed.

[three paragraphs of various links to and information from sources]

I am also not clear on why you think "fanfic" and "parody" are mutually exclusive, but perhaps that is based on your mistaken understanding of that case.

This was years ago, remember, and I'm not sure at what point I lost my temper. But starting out a comment with a paragraph consisting solely of "You are misinformed." is pretty clear online body language. Also, in the last sentence, "perhaps" is more formal than "maybe."

The next comment was at "August 9, 2006 03:15 PM" and runs thusly:

Sean: you said _TWDG_ [The Wind Done Gone] "was not fanfic, it was supposedly intended as parody," which seemed to me to be setting up a dichotomy between the two. Apparently that was not what you intended.

And my point is that the court's decision was not the same as "got slapped down hard by the courts."

You'll note that the settlement went to a charity, not to the Mitchell estate; I suspect that _TWDG_'s publishers determined that it would cost less for that than to litigate the case on remand. Regardless, what we are left with is the 11th Circuit's decision, which vacated the preliminary injunction with these words:

[snip quote]

You are claiming that various people in this debate are misinformed, and thus it would be a good idea if you yourself were properly informed about the case you are discussing.

Again, the first two paragraphs, very short. I see some strained patience in my choices of "my point," "You'll note," "Regardless." And the last paragraph, well: "thus," "you yourself," and "properly" are very formal ornamentations to something that boils down to "stop talking about shit you don't actually understand." (I get a tone of voice, when talking on the phone to extremely obstructive people, of "I am being very restrained. Listen to how restrained I am being. Let us resolve this now while I am still being restrained." Like that.)

The last comment is "August 9, 2006 03:42 PM":

Further comment that slipped in while I was composing the last one:

Fair use only applies to the actual reusage of the words from the original. It does not apply to derivative works

Here is the definition of "derivative work":

[snip paragraph]

[ . . . ] So, first, you're wrong about what derivative works *are*.

Second, I would like to know what you're relying on when you say that "fair use" doesn't apply to derivative works. [ . . . ]

[snip more quotations and citations]

[ . . . ] So, tell me: where are you getting this idea?

[parenthetical paragraph]

By this point I was well and truly pissed; I've moved from "You are misinformed" to "you're wrong," and the punctuation and rhythm of "So, tell me: where are you getting this idea?" was intended to be a direct challenge and to have an implicit "asshole" on the end.

That conversation petered out because the person I was arguing with went away. But here's another example that came to mind that went through a complete lifespan of engaging to persuade a person directly and ending with making a position statement and getting out.

(Note: trigger warning for rape culture; this was a discussion of Roman Polanski.)

There, my opening comment attempted both persuasion by clarity (numbered list) and by stating the seriousness with which I took the matter, i.e., that I was "furious almost beyond words." After several more comments which you can find in the thread following the linked comment above, eventually I ended my participation with an sarcastic explanation of my feelings and then

I do not say this lightly:

Fuck. You.

I'm done here.

Two very different ways of approaching things, and the second is way less subtle than the first and requires far less in the way of parsing body language—though it does still have it, in the deliberate resort to profanity and in the places where I put sentence and paragraph breaks. Using a numbered list in the opening comment was also a way of saying, "This is important to me so I want to be really clear about it."

Okay, that was a lot of self-indulgent navel-gazing! (Just be glad I didn't include an example of my most formal mode, which is legal writing.) Tell me about your online body language examples, of any kind: emoticons, ways of conveying actions, syntax, other things I haven't even thought of.

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Tags: cons, cons: wiscon, cons: wiscon: 2011

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